Nutrition Column – It’s in the Mail, but IsitSafe?

Gifts of food are often a welcome choice, both for the receiver and the giver. Such gifts are a good way to express your thanks and say you care without worrying about size or color.

Food gifts, however, can pose problems for both the giver and receiver. Beyond the issue of whether the recipient will actually like the food sent, a major concern is whether the gift will arrive safely and in good shape.

While foods shipped by mail-order companies enjoy a good safety record, hazards can and do exist. Delays in shipment may allow frozen items to thaw and spoil before arrival. Even if the package arrives safely at the doorstep, it still may spoil before it is discovered unless someone is there to take care of it

You can protect yourself against these mishaps by knowing what to look for when sending and receiving gifts of food. U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Hotline recommends the following safety tips when sending and receiving perishable items.

When ordering food gifts through the mail, transit time and a cold source are key. Be sure to specify overnight delivery and request that the company send your gift with a frozen gel-pack or dry ice in the packaging. This will help guarantee that the food arrives firm and refrigerator-cold.

Make sure any mail-order item of an unusual nature comes with storage and preparation instructions. Nothing is worse than to open a package from Aunt Mary that you know is food, but you’re not sure if it’s safe or even what to do with it.

If you’re packing your own perishable food gift to send, freeze it solid first then pack it in an insulated cooler or a heavy corrugated box packed with a frozen gel-pack. Be sure to fill any empty spaces in the packing box with crushed paper or foam "popcorn" to prevent air spaces that may lead to thawing. Properly label the package "Perishable – Keep Refrigerated" on the outside and provide a complete mailing address and phone number to ensure proper delivery.

Alert the recipient that you are sending a perishable package and arrange a mutually agreeable delivery date and place. If possible, send to the person’s home rather than office. Many offices don’t have adequate refrigerator space to house gifts, and it’s too easy to forget and leave the gift at the office.

If you receive a food item marked "Keep Refrigerated," open it immediately and check its temperature. Ideally, the food should arrive frozen or partially frozen with ice crystals still visible, or at least it should be refrigerator-cold to the touch.

If perishable food arrives warm, notify the company if you think you or the sender should receive a refund. Do not consume the food. However, remember that it’s the shipper’s responsibility to deliver perishable foods on time and the customer’s responsibility to have someone at home to receive the package.

Refrigerate or freeze perishable items immediately upon receipt. Even if a product is partially defrosted, it’s generally safe to refreeze, although there may be some loss in quality.

If mail order foods arrive in questionable condition, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1 (800) 535-4555 can help determine the safety of the product.

To register a complaint about a mail order company, contact the Mail Order Action Line of the Direct Marketing Association, 1111 19th St., Suite 1100, Washington DC 20036.